My Voice is like Bomba

Gabriela García Sánchez

Writing, music, art, and dance all have one thing in common–voice.  No matter the art form, the creator laces his or her own voice into the work. In Eleanor Parker Sapa’s blog, Finding Your Unique Writing Voice, Sapa defines voice as  “the unique way by which we see, experience, and interpret the world as individuals.” She goes on to discuss her thoughts about the use of voice and how there is no one-size-fits-all for this element of the creative process. Her definition demonstrates how the development of a voice is entirely dependent on the artist, and that makes sense to me. If no one person is exactly like another, how can their voices be the same? As someone who is both indecisive and fears commitment, I appreciate that fluidity that Sapa’s definition provides.

I am on a constant search for writers, singers and artists who share work that demands attention as well as a response from their audience. Lately, I have been very drawn to Latinx and Afro-Caribbean writers and artists. I’m interested in the variety of voices, experiences, and attitudes that come from these individuals because they possess similar identities to my own.

My desire to experience art created by artists who identify as Hispanic began when I read Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan. This novel did not fully embody my own experience as a female of Latin descent because Esperanza, the story’s protagonist, is Mexican and I’m Puerto Rican. However, I must give my parents credit for exposing me to a novel that was written by and of Hispanic females.

Similarly, my parents noticed early on that I had a passion for the visual and performing arts. They put me into a Caribbean dance class where I learned salsa, merengue, cha-cha, plena, and bomba. This time of my life was filled with people who looked like me, spoke Spanish, and taught me about my Boricua heritage through dance.

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Out of these dances, bomba was my favorite. Dancing Bomba leaves me in an empowered state, where I am focused on myself as well as my own interactions with the rhythm. In Bomba, this interaction produces the dance steps that in turn influences the beats.

Let me explain: Bomba is one of the beautiful treasures produced from the African influence within Puerto Rican culture. The rhythms, music, and dance of Bomba are derived from the traditions of the African slaves that were brought over during the colonial period, which is why we see variations of this dance and its rhythms throughout the Caribbean. Back in that time, bomba allowed people the space to express their sadness over their living conditions and the struggles that eventually drove them to rebel and protest. However, bomba was also a space they could explore as an expression of joy and celebration, which is how it is more commonly used today.

To truly understand bomba as an artform is to understand the conversation between the dance steps and the beat. In bomba there is always a call and response; a soloist sings a phrase and it evokes the drummers to begin. The crowd then gathers and the dancers begin to come forth. When a dancer comes to the forefront and engages the lead drummer, el primo, he or she is challenging the drummer to follow their steps and body movements with the beats that they produce. The challenge is done like a gentleman’s duel, starting with polite saludos, then the drummer and dancer can go for as long as possible until one tires and a new round begins.

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Bomba gave me an ear for rhythm that I now try to paint onto the canvas. Unfortunately, what the ears hear and the eyes see rarely translate perfectly. Transitioning from dance to painting as my artistic media was a challenge. Developing designs, compositions, and placement of colors to replace the feel of a rhythmic beat was both a strange and daunting task. Unlike dance, where everyone hears the same music, the rhythm that I feel and build into the painting is not the same rhythm that the viewer may experience. Rather than translate my perspective exactly to my audience, I allow my temperament in that moment of creation to dictate the art that I create. Therefore, my work is constantly changing. Recently, I have tried to redirect my art back to the basic of both colors and textures in order to depict movement. Either way, I find myself wanting to cut the ties I’ve placed on myself. The lack of cohesiveness in my art pushes me to explore the lack of a distinct voice that I feel. In all honesty, I still don’t understand the art I create.

A Poetry Sancocho

By: Gabriela García Sánchez

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(Creative Commons/ Flickr)

Sancocho is a stew from Puerto Rico—there are variations of this stew throughout the Caribbean—that dates back to when the Spaniards originally brought African slaves to the island. Since that time, it has been passed down from generation to generation before landing on my table. The integrity of this recipe has been kept intact over all of these years partially because of its simplicity, the ingredients are left to boil in a huge pot and become a hearty stew by the end of the day.  It’s a popular dish in my household as it is apt to bring everyone to the table commanding them to eat. I believe that the beauty of sancocho is that it can be found in many variations across the Caribbean as well as the world. Poetry can have a similar effect.  Like sancocho, poetry has the ability to warm my conscience, lift me up, and fill the spaces within me with its hearty words.

Now, here are some lines that are still simmering away in my mind like a delicious stew:

  1. “If you are grow up the type of woman”

In The Type, Sarah Kay elegantly challenges being a specific type of woman. Her delivery of this poem reminds me of the ocean: the sound is soothing but the waves can pound on your body with a harsh integrity. In this poem, Kay brings me back to being assigned a certain role as an adolescent, people using my physical cues to label me like a plant. Her poem also reminds me of the ways that I have previously defined myself as a certain type of woman who will take care of a certain type of man. This poem acknowledges the power of discovering what is right and wrong for you on your own.

  1. “The birth of revolutions is simple like the wings of butterflies”

To Pimp a Mariposa is an exciting poem for me. First, it is a duet between Julian Randall and Noel Quiñones. Second, it illustrates how poetry is a useful tool to immortalize both history and the people in the creation of it. Being a history junkie myself, I would encourage you to do some research on Dominican history in order to get a better understanding of the significance of the Maribal Sisters. Historical moments do not only need to be remembered, but also engaged with by the present generation so that they can be learned from. In addition, this poem will be enjoyable for anyone who gets the references to songs like Alright from Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly.

  1. “I speak the alien tongue in sweet borinqueño thoughts”

Sandra Maria Esteves’s poem Here situates you in both the speaker’s perspective and setting. Esteves blended Spanish with English, using the manipulation of her diction and the insertion of various slang words in order to draw on specific references about Puerto Rico. The inclusion of both cultural sides of the speaker makes the mixing of cultures more intimate and vivid. This combining of languages is a common occurrence among Puerto Ricans who were raised in the mainland U.S. Language is not mutually exclusive for the speaker (as well as myself), our identities include both.

  1. “My mother tells me to fix my hair”

This poem is so rich for me. Although my mother loves the outrageous way that I wear my hair, my father does not feel the same way. Now, let me start off with saying that I love my father, even though he never fails to notice when I leave my hair to dry in a thick halo. He is prone to remarking, “What’s up with your hair?” or “Are you going to do it?”  From his perspective, I am challenging him with my new hair styles, cuts, and colors. When I do my hair, it’s almost like a mediation for me on how I can manipulate my body into new forms. As a child with tight curls, many people would come up to my mother and me, praising my hair and asking to touch it. However, when I was five years old I wanted to have silky, bone straight hair that my mother would not have to tediously detangle. Today, I have grown to love my hair for it’s natural texture. Poems like Elizabeth Acevedo’s Hair speak to the spiritual connection that I have fostered with my hair.

  1. “She speaks a sancocho of Spanish and English pushing up and against one another”

My number eight choice goes out to my mama (Hi, Mamí). My mother moved to the U.S.  from Puerto Rico about 24 years ago and even though she’s fluent in English, she still has trigger words that flare up her accent. Sometimes, my best friend and I purposely get her to use words that we know she’ll mispronounce just to hear the awkward remixes that she will create. Denice Frohman’s poem Accents is narrated in such a way that embodies the personality of my mother and her unique existence between English and Spanish.

  1. “My Spanish is left in the corner of the classroom, chews on a pencil, does not raise its hand…”

This line from My Spanish by Melissa Lozada- Oliva is the spitting image of me as a child in school. In this poem, Lozada-Oliva dives in to what “my Spanish” means to her by demonstrating the way in which her identity interacts with her environment. This line tickles my memories about the way in which I was often embarrassed my lack of a Puerto Rican accent. It is as if I needed to prove my Spanish-ness to those around me because I could not naturally integrate it into the way that I spoke. As a child I would often say, “I understand more than I can say.” At this point in my life, English is not enough for me. I need to express myself in both languages in order to describe my perspective to others.

  1. “I am nasty like the battles women fought to get me into that voting booth”

Many have heard Ashley Judd recite the poem, Nasty Woman, by Nina Mariah at the Women’s March in D.C. This line is from that poem, reminding me of how important my civil duty of voting is to my experience as a woman. Being an active voter is my way of honoring the women who have come before, those who fought so that I have the choices that I enjoy today. This poem also reminds me of the fact that my ability to vote is only a little older than my great grandmother, who is 93 (women’s suffrage is only 97 years old).

  1. “I’m the pimp who built this shit”

Porsha Olayiwola’s poem, Capitalism, depicts the power of personification and extended metaphors by giving a voice to America’s economic system. Her delivery of this poem commands attention in the same way that the financial state of this country rules over the lives of its citizens. This poet’s ability to bring capitalism to life while simultaneously villainising it is both entertaining and thought provoking.

  1. “Wepa for the word that taught my people to celebrate”

Perfection by Noel Quiñones captures the spirit of the people of Puerto Rico. This identity is powered by our pride in our lineage, which is a combination of Tainos, Spaniards and African Slave. In an odd way, we are like satos, mutts or, better yet, a designer breed of people. Quiñones reminds me of the pride that I feel for Puerto Rican history, the reason why we wave our flags, and the community that unites our understanding of ourselves into a cohesive group.

  1. “Go como la negra tiene tumbao, azuuuuuucar”

Elizabeth Acevedo’s poetry has worked its way into my heart, and Afro-Latina is one of the stand-outs that first caught my attention. Her soft yet strong delivery of her piece is empowering. I love to read and hear poetry that intertwines languages with art forms and narratives. Acevedo tugged on my heart string by stirring butterflies in my consciousness. Acevedo directly engages her audience with lyrics from famous Latinx icons like Celia Cruz which reinforces positive images of successful Latinos. She also faces heavy issues like sexism and race head on through her lines. Her ability to embrace her identity as an Afro-Latina, and all of the parts that make up that understanding of the self, is empowering.

Reading and listening to poems revitalizes me like my mamá’s sancocho, except the sustenance it gives me builds and coddles my mind. These poets have managed to imprint their words into my thoughts by using different styles, dictions, performances, and experiences. Hearing their recitations has caused the inner dialogue of my consciousness to spiral and intersect, infusing their spoken words into my own experience like the flavors of the rich sancocho that nourishes my body.